Ramana Maharshi - the Nature of Sacred Sculpture

Greetings from Masa Rasa Studios. 

We’re coming up on the one year anniversary of launching our line of bronze statues.  Yay!  And to celebrate we have a couple of new statues to offer, and more planned for the future.  After a long time of working it’s way through the foundry process, our new sculpture of Ramana Maharshi is finished in bronze and available for sale on our website.  Many people know of Ramana, but for those who are just discovering him, let me share a few thoughts about his life and teachings, and in doing so, also talk about the nature of sacred statues, which to some minds is a difficult if not controversial subject.  We promise to make it easy.

The Life of  Sri Ramana Maharshi

    Enquiring into the source of life and the nature of death with the most fundamental of questions, 'Who Am I?",  Ramana Maharshi found enlightenment at the age of 16.  He emerged as one of India's, if not the world's, greatest spiritual teachers.  Ramana was considered by his followers to be a Jnani, a knower of Truth.  He lived on his beloved hill Arunachala near the town of Tiruvannamalai, and received all who came to him with the same kindness and unwavering  compassion for nearly a half century until his passing in 1950.  Ramana illumined the path of Self-enquiry and knowledge for a host of seekers around the world, and continues to do so.  His life and teaching were indeed about who we are, serving those wanting to explore their need for spiritual meaning in life.  According to Ramana, to know God is to know your own Self.  His path was that of direct knowledge and the revelation of Self-enquiry beyond words and images, stating unequivocally:

     "Your own Self-realization is the greatest service you can render the world."

    The renowned philosopher, author, and spiritual rascal, Alan Watts, was so taken by the power, joy, and simplicity of Ramana's words that he kept a smiling photo of the Sage by his front door.   Carl Jung was also an admirer, saying . . .  “Sri Ramana is a true son of the Indian earth. He is genuine, and, in addition to that, something quite phenomenal.  In India he is the whitest spot in a white space. What we find in the life and teachings of Sri Ramana is the purest of India with its breath of world-liberated and liberating humanity.  It is a chant of millenniums…”

    A white spot.   So why create a statue of him?    Why make sacred sculpture at all?    

         Ramana Maharshi, the Sage of Arunachala.                                     Ceramic   12”H


    Well, the short answer is we do it, and did it, because we enjoy it.  Making statues and images of spiritual figures and deities has been an accepted and creative practice among many of the world's religions and spiritual paths for millennia.  Traditionally, a sacred sculpture in India is known as a murti.  It is both a work of art and a vehicle for the deepest most profound feeling and experience -  a means of communication with the spirit of the subject imaged, a work infused with the power of Consciousness.  

    There are those who don’t share that kind of experience when it comes to sacred sculpture, finding that God, Spirit, or the Truth, is unmanifest . . . untouchable by the mind and senses.  Inexpressible.  Those people require no outer form for contemplation, no object on which to rest the mind, so they probably won’t be reading this.  For those who do enjoy worshipping outer forms that represent God, the great Indian scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, has this to say:

“It is much more difficult to focus on God as the unmanifested than God with form, due to human beings having the need to perceive via the senses.”   Chapter 12, Verse 5

    There is a depth to that statement that is perhaps not so obvious.  This ‘need’ is not a weakness or lesser state as some would interpret it.  It is the play of the Divine itself.  So why make it hard on yourself?  If you desire a manifested form, a sacred sculpture is one way to go. That desire may be fulfilled through any number of mediums and works of art and craft, or fulfilled by contemplating the beauty of nature itself.

Portals and Do-It-Yourself Consciousness

    Murtis are living portals.  They are a round trip.  Our portals, our gates, our vehicles, may be in the form of statues, paintings, texts, scrolls, architecture, music, symbols, calligraphy, gardens, or even mountains, just to name a few.  Ramana had his divine hill, Arunachala.  For some, the greatest pathway is through the human form of the teacher, the lover, the friend, the prophet, the guru.  All of these may serve as a means of communion and remembrance.  


    Some people refer to a sacred statue as a moorthi  -  a slightly different transliteration of the Sanskrit word for murti (also spelled murthi or murthy - moorthi  is a spelling that is often used in association with the sculpture of sacred cows :)

    A person who recently viewed our murti of Ramana online suggested that “one should make their own murti rather than buy one,” presumably to insure the greatest truth and authenticity in worship.  Kind of a do-it-yourself approach to sacred statues.  Of course, one can make a murti for themselves if they like, and in that spirit, consider the ancient story of Ekalavya, a young character in the Mahabharata  who longed to study with the master archer, Drona, his chosen guru.  Yet Ekalavya was denied being a disciple because of his lower social standing.  Ekalavya was determined to learn one way or the other, so he made a mud statue of the great teacher and worshipped it every day while practicing his archery in secret.  As a result of  his determination, faith, and love for his guru, Ekalavya imbibed the skills of the master from a distance, and in such a way that Drona finally sang the praises of Ekalavya’s mastery.  So, if you decide to make your own murti, may you enjoy the artistic process while bringing the statue to life.                               
    Perhaps you don’t have the desire or skill to create your own sculpture, then you might instead choose to buy a work, or you may receive one as a gift.  Perhaps you prefer to visit a temple or place of worship that have statues installed, sculpture created by master artists and made available through the donations of devotees.  There are alternatives, and simply put, there is no right or wrong way here in order to avail yourself of a murti of your chosen deity or teacher.  In a sense it’s all do-it-yourself.  For those who create their own, receive a murti as a gift, or choose to purchase one, they will make it their own in any event by bestowing their own grace, energy, and devotion upon it . . . Consciousness.

                                     Ramana’s murti at Sri Ramanashramam, Tiruvannamalai

Rasa - The Aesthetic Response                        

    The Mundaka Upanishad makes the wonderful and astonishing assertion that “aesthetic experience is the twin of God.” God has a twin??  Why not. Aesthetic experience is also known as in Indian philosophy as Rasa - the inner nectar of the Self.  It is the sweetness experienced while beholding the falls at Yosemite, viewing a Van Gogh at the museum, or listening to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  To test that understanding, the next time your heart skips a beat over seeing a piece of art, someone you love, or a panoramic view in nature, recall that statement and see if you find it to be true, see how you feel.  Such aesthetic response is an experience infused with the richest meaning and pleasure, and affirms that regardless of whether it's a Great Being, a murti, a work of art, an artist, the world, or You - Consciousness inheres equally in all.

    Aesthetic experience is the bridge in human experience, the ‘Art’ in the great saying ‘Thou Art That.’  It is the experience that devotees have when they gaze on Ramana’s murti in his ashram in Tiruvannamalai.  Again, there are many ways to have that experience.  Yet problems in human communication arise when people begin to think that what floats their boat is somehow superior to others, forcing their ideas upon people who don't share the same understanding.  The veneration of sacred objects has often been such a source of  controversy between religions and aspirants, sparking heated debate and violent prohibitions.  So many viewpoints . . . but as they say in the art world, ‘you gotta draw the line somewhere’ and it could be a tangent.  Then again, you could decide to draw nothing . . . something Zen artists have been doing for centuries.  Still, they come up with beautiful works of art, a positive something.  Simply put, there is no right way or wrong way in art.  Why would it be any different in spiritual life?


Call it by any name . . . God, Self, the Heart, or the seat of Consciousness, it is all the same  . . .
the center without which there is nothing whatever.
    What are you?  You are not the body.  You are Pure Consciousness.~ Sri Ramana

    My perspective is mainly that of an artist.  I focus on the creative act and the form the work takes, if it takes form at all.  They are indeed twins, creativity and the form it takes, or two sides of the same conscious coin.  Sometimes the coin is made of bronze.  As the great Indian philosopher and guru Abhinavagupta said, “motive is everything.”  That’s my portal -  the aesthetic experience of creation.  But that is not to the exclusion of what the art represents, in this case Ramana Maharshi, nor to the exclusion of those who might enjoy the work - my family, friends, art lovers, and critics (yes, we will also include the critics, for they just want to be loved).   

Some summarizing

    Let me finish up with a few musings about the nature of media.  In essence we’ve been exploring what exactly media is, specifically what a murti is, having this new statue of Ramana as the teacher.  What is the nature of the ‘vehicle’?  Is it an inert substance conjured into life and meaning by our ideas, inspirations, and efforts, or something more?  It cannot possibly be separate from the energy flowing through the forms and identities expressed.  So isn’t media more than metal, paint, and pixels?  What has been communicated, with what, and to Whom?  The mind stumbles.   And that’s the whole point. . . going beyond the mind.  That’s where the juice is.

    I have found the understanding that works for me as an artist is one of inclusion, an understanding beautifully expressed in this benediction by Swami Lakshmanjoo.  Swamiji was a great scholar of the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, and spent time in the presence of Ramana.

“Let God, who has taken the form of this individual being, offer salutations to his own Universal Being through this form and all forms of art and ritual, which are also God, for the removal of obstacles to all understanding, which are indeed one with God, and for the bestowal of grace, which is Love.”   

    A murti may appear to be a heavy object made of metal, but it’s truly a starlight gate to wherever you want to go.  This new murti of Ramana is no different.  All the Great Beings say the same thing, that the truth dwells within you, as you.  Sri Ramana Maharshi exclaimed “the whole world is my Guru.”  To truly understand him, we must also ask the question he poses:
                    “Who Am I?”  

Om . . .

Masa Rasa   JN